Earth-friendly Products Are A Challenge To Sell

December 08, 1990|By Jean Thompson

The concept of protecting the Earth is easy to sell; the household products that make it possible are not. That's the consensus of many in Maryland and nationwide whose businesses provide consumers with "green" gadgets, cleansers, beauty products and hardware.

"If you decide to make the switch to green, you are opening a whole can of beans," says Karen E. Dix, a Cecil County entrepreneur. She's filled her red cedar house with non-toxic products she sells by mail. Most require education in order to be truly useful, even if only a little, but for some customers, that's too much.

"Familiarity has a lot to do with consumer buying. These products may look different or may have to be used differently from what people are used to. A habit is a really difficult thing to change."

Ms. Dix didn't have a choice when she began buying Earth-friendly products about eight years ago. She was acting to preserve her own health.

For about 18 months, she had suffered a series of mysterious symptoms that befuddled doctors and caused her headaches and nausea. She consulted several specialists and doctors finally determined she has "environmental" allergies. The formaldehyde in carpets, counter-top and building materials and sofa stuffing material gives off fumes that often go undetected by users; some people, Ms. Dix among them, develop acute sensitivities.

Formaldehyde is only one culprit. The fungicides used in many house paints, the chemicals in fabric softeners and cleansers; kerosene fumes -- any of these and hundreds more common items can trigger reactions ranging from to asthmatic symptoms to mild discomfort to comas or death in some allergy sufferers.

"In some books that I've read about this, it's sometimes referred to as the '20th Century Disease.' If I'd been born a century ago, most of these synthetic products wouldn't have been in the home."

At first, Ms. Dix invested in non-toxic products -- when she could find them -- for herself and her three children, one of whom has shown signs of similar allergic problems. Hit or miss, she also developed strategies for coping. Vinegar and baking soda, which environmentalists are now touting as Earth-friendly substitutes for harsh chemical cleansers, have have been staples in her arsenal against allergy-triggering products.

Eventually, she began keeping an inventory and sending out a catalog to callers who learned of her by word of mouth. Most share one or many of her allergies, but more and more frequently, she says, the callers are simply interested in reducing the number of chemicals and potential pollutants in their homes. Triumphing over her allergies has turned her into a mail-order entrepreneur. She carried low- and no-synthetics home-care supplies, including spackle, adhesives, sealers, primers, varnishes and paints. These are the products that help allergy suffererssurvive: some of the sealants, for example, block gas emissions from wallboard. Some of the paints have no fungicides.

She also carries lines of natural vegetable and citrus-oil-based cleansers, and garden supplies, cosmetics, natural fragrances and children's supplies, such as crayons made from beeswax and non-toxic dyes.

During the last three years, she's expanded the offerings in her simple, illustrated catalog to include recycled paper goods, cellophane bags (substitute for plastic sandwich bags) and wooden utensils. One popular product is a reusable, unbleached cotton muslin coffee and tea filter.

Many green products are less expensive than familiar commercial goods because they come in concentrated quantities but some, such as the paints and varnishes, cost more. "When you decide to go green, it requires a whole re-education," she says. Her phone number is 800 KARENS4.

Halfway across the state in Rockville, Selena Anderson agrees. Her 5-year-old mail-order venture, Vegan Street, carried items from biodegradable laundry powder to natural deodorants and herbal toothpaste. It specialized in substitutes for products that used animal testing.

But this week she pulled the plug on the company's 800 number and went out of business.

"People are very resistant to change," she says of consumers. She confirms that most consumers have good intentions, however.

"I think you have to make it so easy for people. There's a market for [green products] but it's very specialized," Ms. Anderson says. Most customers who want these products have already found sources for it, such as health food stores, she says.

The national companies fare much better, particularly older, established companies including Real Goods Trading Co. and Seventh Generation. John Schaeffer, the owner of Real Goods, says he asks readers to submit ideas for new green products. Real Goods offers extensive lines of solar-powered products, energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, water-conserving faucet attachments -- even an old-fashioned clothes washer with a hand-cranked wringer. Many of his customers are rural dwellers who don't use power supplies taken for granted in the city. One reason green devices come to the market slowly, he says, is they are produced by very small and cottage industries with low output.

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